Commentary by Adam Clarke, CarCoverGuys.com Owner
Part of being an entrepreneur is dealing with customer service problems. Actually, part of being at any level of the business world involves things that go wrong for one reason or another. After 25 years in the “people” business, from fast food cashier to small business owner, I’ve seen some things that don’t ever get found in the “Standard Operating Procedure” manual, and I learned that good business management is more about solving the strange problem than creating procedures for the common ones.
Of course, not every problem is solved inasmuch as it is “dealt with.” In the course of my career I’ve come across some original (and not so original) complaints, so I thought I’d give you a taste of some of the classics:
1. 1. "You ruined Christmas." If you lived in the Great Lakes Region in 2004, you might remember a little snowstorm before Christmas. It’s the one that grounded all air traffic for several days. One of our customers ordered a gift at the last minute and asked if it would be there on time. The delivery company (one of the big 3) said that as long as it left the warehouse by the 22nd, she’d have the item. Since I am not a meteorologist or a higher power, I told her the same thing and she ordered the item. Incidentally, this item not worth more than $50, and shipping was almost equal to the price of the product, so it isn’t as if the customer planned ahead. Sure enough, the weather had other plans. Last minute shoppers all over the country had the same problem we did. On the 24th we personally called to apologize to everyone who would not get their gifts on time, but this customer was not available because she gave us a fake phone number. Almost everyone we called understood the problem, and most people had no problem letting the gift recipient know that their present would arrive late. However, there was one exception. Not only did she blame me for ruining Christmas, she also insinuated that I was responsible for the weather. The resolution? We sent a call tag (basically a prepaid ticket for an item getting returned) for the item that arrived on the 27th, and everyone in the office congratulated me on my ability to make it snow. What we took away? If we hadn’t called the other customers, there would have been more problems like this one.
2. 2. "I should get it free." This complaint might as well be an echo. People actually think that a product that cost money to make, market, and ship should be given to them for nothing because of a minor (or made up) inconvenience. Some people will even put a hair into their food so they can get the whole meal at no charge. How to respond? Pure Judgment Call. If the person seems like they do this all the time, stand your ground. Otherwise, see if you can meet the client halfway. I’m more than willing to make a problem right if it is my fault, but I would rather lose money than give something away to a serial complainer. In my mind, more businesses could take a stand and then we’d send a message to a few vocal freeloaders.
3. 3."I’m charging back." Actually, people say this through their credit card company. I’ve been in several situations where a client does a chargeback. In retail, we try to avoid these because the $25 charged by the credit card company often exceeds the profit made on the item. The cost of disputing or responding to the chargeback can take several hours or a manager’s time, which often makes it cheaper to avoid the conflict altogether. At one of my previous employers, we called the customer and asked why he was charging back since the tracking number showed that he’d gotten the product. He responded that he charges back everything on his card because nobody ever disputes the chargeback. We did, passed on his comment to the card company, and still lost the dispute! What did we do? We blacklisted him, and made sure to tell our competition the customer’s name in case he tried to buy anything from them.
4. “4. "I made a mistake – you pay to fix it." One client thought she would buy a birthday surprise for her sister in England. The item (a Dashmat Dash Cover) goes on the dashboard of an American vehicle, and she didn’t stop to think that it would not fit on one that has the steering wheel on the other side. When the product did not fit, she expected us to come up with $250 to airmail the product back to the US, or just refund her money. We had to say no. The moral: you won’t stay in business for very long if you try to help people who create complex problems.
5. 5. " I distinctly remember..." I often consult on short term marketing projects for business partners. One of their clients expected us to re-do a campaign we did for her a year before because she took 13 months to finish a project that should have only taken 3 weeks. She said she “distinctly remembers” telling us that the project would take over a year. I know this to be untrue, because we all would “distinctly remember” such a statement into the terms of the contract and triple the price. Because we got our work done on time, and most of it was still applicable, we were able to adapt it to the client’s new focus and part on amicable terms, but it wasn’t the first time we had all heard the phrase “distinctly” being used in the context of a fictional scenario. What we took from it: get your client to define timelines up front in writing, and you won’t have to confront convenient recollections in the future.
6. 6. "Your salesman said." When I was in client service and administration, this was always my least favorite statement. Why? Because it was usually true. I have had salesmen promise that I could do things beyond my capabilities, such as writing code in a computer language I don’t even know., which is unusual because I am not even certified to hook two computers together. I had a salesman promise that I would do extra work on a contract that was not even worth $500 to the company. Other salesmen would promise that my timeline was remarkably open when I was actually scheduled to be on vacation when the work needed to be done. My answer: anyone who does sales for me has to pay back his/her commission IN FULL if the client has to be refunded, and that amount may very well be deducted from the final paycheck. An oily salesman may make you short term money, but your reputation will never be the same.
7. 7. "Did you really expect me to read the contract?" Sometimes this was in relation to the statement “You Salesman Said” above, since the salesman would promise something big and then send a contract with vastly different terms and conditions. In other cases, it is important to know that the contract is only a part of a business relationship, and it is not always wrong to throw a bone to someone who has promise as a long term client. Even though I have yet to go to court over a contract, I have also never been a party to one that was followed letter-for-letter, except by the most nitpicky clients who wanted bullet points on each deliverable. What I learned? Have a kick-off call with the client and define exactly what’s expected.
8. 8. "I bought beer but I want champagne." Sometimes this is the easiest client to fire. Whether you are specifying an advertising campaign or a burrito, some people jus t want more than they deserve. When confronted by the customer who asks for more than they bought, I try to apply a series of questions such as “how hard is it?” “will he come back?” “do I want him back” and “is there a way to deliver an added value like this to more customers who might be asking for the same thing?” If the answer is “no,” then tell your customer that Champagne isn’t on the menu. Some of my biggest problems came about when I was helping the wrong people.
9. 9. "Rats ate my car cover." To be fair, I’ve been in the automotive field for longer than I’d care to remember. I got started selling in Las Vegas, but one of my top sites sells car covers nationwide, and they are very good covers. However, this customer (who shall remain nameless) sent me an email asking for a refund because in the hills of California, there are rats, and they ate his car cover. His logic was that since the cover was an outdoor cover, and rats live outdoors, then he should get a refund because the manufacturer should design to protect the cover against outdoor animals. Our response: Sorry, car covers are not tested on animals. Can you imagine if we had to test our products on everything from Deer to Mountain Lions and Kodiak Bears? For one thing, the folks at PETA would start throwing paint on our car covers and calling us murderers. For another thing, rats also live indoors, on ships, and inside popular NYC restaurants, and if they can eat through sheet metal, even the best fabrics and synthetic materials won’t stop them. Even now, years after the fact, I can’t get over this little customer service tidbit.
When I showed this article to some of the other people in the office, they said I shouldn’t send it out because it portrayed customer service in a negative light. (The other ones said it portrayed salespeople in a negative light.) Nothing could be further from the truth. Most customers are in fact nice, rational people. Some of them, however, are hostile, deluded, and perhaps even sociopathic. As I explained above, I have been in every role from peon to owner, and I would not have gotten far if I did not understand the needs of good clients. However, I would like to think that enough people have experienced sufficient aggravation from these little situations, and it is always good to know that you are not alone when you are out on the front lines of business.
Adam Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org